Gulf Cup in 1988 proves to be a launch pad for UAE success
Few matches involving the UAE have provided such tension, drama and expectation than the game on March 13, 1988 – against Gulf Cup hosts Saudi Arabia, a generation of Emirati players came of age.
Twenty six years later, the events of that day continue to provide bittersweet memories for players and fans alike.
Since hosting the Gulf Cup in Abu Dhabi six years earlier, the UAE’s improvement had been steady.
In Oman in 1984, the team finished fourth. Two years later in Bahrain, months after failing, agonisingly, to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s men were second, with Fahad Khamees’s six goals earning him the competition Golden Boot award for top scorer.
In Saudi, confidence was soaring, the nation united in the belief that the UAE’s time had come.
The tournament back then was one seven-team group, with the table toppers taking the trophy. The UAE kicked off comfortably with a 2-0 win over Bahrain, goals by Zuhair Bakheet and Khalil Ghanem.
In the following days, the team was given an unexpected boost. Both holders Iraq as well as hosts and Asian Champions Saudi drew their second matches, 1-1 and 0-0 with Oman and Qatar respectively.
This meant an Emirati win in the next match would see them go top of the table. Ninety minutes later, it was mission accomplished as one goal, by Bakheet, was enough to defeat a fading Kuwait.
The forward line of Adnan Al Talyani, Khamees and the gifted Bakheet were proving a deadly combination for the UAE – which made what came next so hard to stomach.
A modest Qatari team, who would finish second from bottom, pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament to beat the Emiratis 2-1.
It was the UAE’s only defeat and Qatar’s only win, and the damage to the UAE player’s morale and the team’s points tally was significant.
The next two matches delivered only two points and yet, curiously in hindsight, can be see as major steps forward for the Emiratis.
Against Iraq, a formidable team that so often in the past had inflicted painful defeats, the UAE managed a creditable 0-0 draw.
Three days later came the match of the tournament and one of the UAE’s most memorable performances of their history in the Gulf Cup.
At a packed and noisy King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, the UAE, with Bakheet in sensational form, threatened to blow the host nation away with a devastating first-half performance.
Early on, Bakheet cleverly beat the offside trap and skipped past Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea, whose outstretched arm made contact with the striker’s foot – penalty. The goalkeeper, however, recovered his cool to save superbly from Abdulrahman Mohammed.
The breakthrough came in the 38th minute, a Saudi clearance superbly volleyed home by Bakheet.
Minutes later, Khamees broke the offside trap and from a narrow angle hit the near post. Waiting was Bakheet who slotted the rebound in. The UAE were in dreamland.
Then half time came and a shell-shocked Saudi Arabia were saved by the bell.
On the hour, the hosts pulled one back through Abdullah Ghurab’s header and the Saudis had taken the momentum.
With four minutes left, the UAE resistance was broken, Saudi striker Majed Abdullah scored with a stooping header past Abdulqadar Hassan. Delirium for the home fans, despair, again, for the Emiratis.
The two draws proved decisive. A 1-0 win, thanks to Talyani, over Oman in the last match was not enough for the UAE, who had to settle for second place behind Iraq.
That elusive Gulf Cup win would have to wait another 19 years, but a far greater prize was just around the corner for this team.
Later that year, the Football Association replaced Parreira with another Brazilian, the legendary Mario Zagalo.
Less than 18 months later, with more or less the same squad that had flirted with triumph in Riyadh, Zagalo, the man who had claimed world titles as player and coach, helped the UAE qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The seeds of success had been sowed during those dramatic two weeks in Riyadh.
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Updated: November 10, 2014 04:00 AM